Day: April 20, 2007

Tallinn Memorial

The Estonian foreign ministry has released the following fact sheet about the Tallinn war memorial:

The Memorial in Tallinn to the Fallen of World War Two

20 April 2007

The Republic of Estonia, like the other EU member states, honours the memory of all the victims and the fallen of World War Two. As well as greatly values the contribution of those nations that fought in the name of destroying fascism in Europe and in the whole world. At the same time, the Estonian government condemns the activities of those individuals – be they Estonian citizens or the representatives of a foreign power – who, on the territory of the Republic of Estonia, committed crimes against humanity, and carried out mass repressions. By dealing with crimes against humanity as international crimes without a statute of limitations, we sincerely hope that they can be prevented in the future.

In Estonia, the graves of 217 Soviet soldiers and nearly ten German military cemeteries have been declared to be national heritage landmarks. The exact number of military graves has been constantly changing due to both new finds and re-interments. The burial sites of Soviet soldiers have been taken care of by local administrations.

World War Two was a tragic page in Estonia’s history. In 1940, Estonia was occupied and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union for more than 50 years. Forcibly drafted Estonians were forced to fight in the ranks of foreign armies on both sides of the front, since the male residents of Estonia were forcibly mobilised into the armed forces of the occupying regimes – into the active units of both the Red Army and the Waffen-SS. This was a serious breach of a generally accepted principle — that a military draft may not be enforced on occupied territory. During the course of World War Two, as a result of occupations and massive deportations, Estonia’s human losses were immense. Alongside tens of thousands of Estonians, the Russian, and other minority cultures, that had developed in Estonia before the War were practically wiped out. As a result, the celebration of all kinds of victories and liberations is a very controversial subject for the Estonian people.

The memorial for those who had fallen in World War Two was erected in central Tallinn, in Tõnismäe Park, on 22 September 1947. As an obligatory component of Soviet city planning, a Red Army monument had to be placed in the centre of the city in a public place, and be surrounded by a spacious square where it would be possible to carry out large-scale events on Soviet and Red Army anniversaries. Later, Tõnismäe, as a burial site for those who had fallen in the Second World War, was declared to be a cultural landmark.

This memorial has a dual meaning for the people living in Estonia – on the one hand, it is a painful reminder of Estonia being occupied by a foreign army. On the other hand, it recalls the fallen who gave their lives fighting against Nazi Germany. The praising of the first meaning and its demonstrative celebrating is, of course, unacceptable for Estonia. The second meaning is the only possible one, and similar in content to that of memorials elsewhere in Europe.

On the basis of an historical query compiled by the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, “The Red Army Troops’ Common Grave and Memorial in Tallinn’s Tõnismäe”, it can be stated that on 14 April 1945, 12 coffins were buried in Tõnismäe for propagandistic purposes. But existing documents do not indicate the exact burial spots, and archives and other sources of information do not give a clear picture of who, and why, are buried in Tõnismäe. Meanwhile, not all archive materials, primarily those in Russia, are accessible, and the various existing sources provide somewhat contradictory information. Thus, the need has arisen to clarify, in greater detail, the circumstances surrounding the supposed burial spots in Tõnismäe Park.

It is the moral and international obligation of the Estonian state to ensure the security and the peace of the grave of military graves and their adjoining monuments. On the basis of this, on 10 January 2007, the Military Graves Protection Act was passed, that observes international principles (the corresponding Geneva Convention) and practices. In accordance with this legislation, a Military Graves Committee was established at the Ministry of Defence, that presents proposals to the defence minister on matters concerning the security of the burial spots of the victims of war as well as the possible re-interment of remains.

On the basis of the aforementioned conventions and common humane practices, it is not acceptable that people are buried in unmarked graves in a park in central Tallinn, and that public events are held on these unnamed graves. Just as the present utilisation of Tõnismäe Park does not ensure the peace of the grave, since unhindered pedestrian traffic crosses the supposed burial spot. This means that, in Tallinn, we are dealing with what, according to generally recognised humane practices and value judgements, can be regarded as an abnormal situation.

In addition to the problem with ensuring the peace of the grave, there is also the factor that in this central Tallinn, Tõnismäe burial spot for the fallen of World War II, there have occurred several events that have been hostile towards the Estonian state and have quite clearly disturbed the peace of the grave, which, in turn, has brought forth the general community’s counter-reaction. These supposed military graves, together with their monument, no longer symbolise a memorial spot for the fallen, but have turned into a location where various political groups gather to demonstrate and incite hostility, where laws are broken and the criminal Communist regime is praised. This all has, unfortunately, proven to be true in the course of the last 15 years. The moving of the monument, as well as the re-interment of the remains, from central Tallinn to an appropriately suitable location – a cemetery – would dispel this ideological nightmare, and would provide the interred with the peace of the grave. The monument would then acquire the only contemporarily suitable meaning – the function of memorialising those having fallen in war.

Thus, on 9 March 2007, the Military Graves Committee recommended to the defence minister that the remains located in Tõnismäe be re-interred, since, in the present location, the peace of the grave cannot be ensured. To ensure the peace of the grave, the remains in the vicinity of the monument should be reburied in the Tallinn Inner City Cemetery. In the committee’s opinion, this is an honourable location, where the peace of the grave and the respect due to a military grave can be ensured. Estonian, British, and Soviet soldiers, who have fallen in various wars, are already interred at the Inner City Cemetery. The Tõnismäe monument, as a cultural landmark, will also find a new location in the the Inner City Cemetery, and will definitely not be demolished.

All the steps that are to be taken in this matter will be in accordance with Estonian and international laws as well as European principles. Plus, the National Heritage Board, as well as other appropriate experts, will be involved in the re-interment process. In connection with the re-interment, representatives of the Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, as well as the Jewish community, have expressed their approval.

In Estonia’s case, there is nothing exceptional about such a development. Throughout Eastern Europe, the remains of those having fallen in war have been re-buried in cemeteries so as to ensure their peace of the grave. This was done on an especially massive scale, for instance, in Hungary, at the beginning of the 90s. In regards to monuments erected to the Red Army, an example can be presented from the Czech Republic – in Prague, no such monument can be found, although smaller memorials do exist, but only in cemeteries.

In connection with the Tõnismäe monument, a widespread debate has developed in Estonian society over the meaning of the memorial and its present location in Tallinn’s metropolitan space. The Estonian Public Understanding Foundation, which combines over 60 organisations, has initiated an extensive debate concerning tolerance. Upon the initiative of the Tallinn City Council, round table meetings are taking place that are dealing with the theme of the Tõnismäe memorial. Over 30 organisations and political alliances, including war veterans’ groups, are participating. At the last session, on 6 March 2007, the participants found that one possibility would be to find the monument another, more suitable, location. This is a step towards a more mature society, that shares democratic values, in which attempts are made to solve the problems confronting society at a common conference table, where the multiplicity of opinions are taken into consideration.

Stopping at Nothing

In the latest issue of the Spectator, Anne Applebaum considers that Vladimir Putin will stop at nothing to suppress the new wave of Russian dissidents. Britain is becoming the principal target of the Kremlin’s new assertive anti-Western policy. In the aftermath of last Saturday’s violent break-up by Moscow riot police of a peaceful march and rally, a disturbing event that was widely publicised in the world’s media, she concludes that

The new aggression might […] be evidence that the Kremlin is now so self-confident that it no longer needs to make any gestures to Western public sensibilities at all.

There are many reasons why this might be so. That 80 per cent public support — backed up by a television monopoly which gives no time to potential opponents — is part of it. High oil prices are even more important. Soviet dissidents at least knew that even in the darkest times, they could get some attention paid to their cause in the West: in 1980 a group of Russian women political prisoners sent a message to President Ronald Reagan, congratulating him on his election. It arrived within three days, to the President’s delight, infuriating the KGB. But nowadays, the West is so anxious to please President Putin, and so keen to buy his gas and oil, that Kasparov and Kasyanov can’t count on much press coverage. Reagan is not in the White House; it is hard to imagine a letter from a Russian prison raising many eyebrows today.

In the end, though, some of that self-confidence surely comes from a sense of vindication. For a brief period, in the early 1990s, it looked like the KGB was finished. Now it is back, and more important than ever. If nothing else, the past decade has proven to Putin and his colleagues that the values they imbibed during their years in the Soviet secret services were the right ones. They no longer care if others disagree.